Frank, S. A. and Barbour, A. G. 2006. Within-host dynamics of antigenic variation. Infection, Genetics and Evolution 6:141-146.
Genomes of some parasites contain dozens of alternative and highly diverged surface antigens, of which only a single one is expressed in any cell. Individual cells occasionally change expression of their surface antigen, allowing them to escape immune surveillance. These switches appear to occur in a partly random way, creating a diverse set of antigenic variants. In spite of this diversity, the parasitemia develops as a series of outbreaks, in which each outbreak is dominated by relatively few antigenic types. Host-specific immunity eventually clears the dominant antigenic types, and a new outbreak follows from antigenic types that have apparently been present all along at low frequency. This pattern of sequential dominance by different antigenic types remains unexplained. We review the five most prominent theories, which have developed mainly from studies of the protozoans Trypanosoma and Plasmodium, and the bacterial spirochete Borrelia. The most promising theories depend on some combination of mechanisms to create favored connectivity pathways through the matrix of transitions between variants. Favored pathways may arise from biased switches at the molecular level of gene expression or from biases imposed by immune selection. We illustrate the concept of connectivity pathways by reanalysis of data on transitions between variants from Borrelia hermsii.